What Makes a Penthouse?

Posted On: August 15, 2019
By: Matt Fuller

There are some pretty fabulous penthouse homes in San Francisco. The two most expensive available at the moment? The first is the Grand Penthouse at 181 Fremont — approximately $46 million, the entire top floor of the building with almost 7,000 square feet of living space. Coming in right behind that is the grand penthouse at The Avery, which is also a full-floor penthouse. The Avery penthouse offers about 8,500 square feet of interior space plus another 1,600 square feet of private outdoor space and is asking about $42 million.


Enormous & expensive, that’s what makes a penthouse!

Real estate agents are known for some pretty, um, optimistic real estate marketing over the years. And one phrase in particular seems to be abused more than any other: penthouse. What, exactly, makes a property worthy of the penthouse moniker?

In general, experience suggests that when you market a property as a penthouse, it should meet the following criteria:

  • Be at or very near the top floor of a tall building. Small, short buildings can have lovely top-floor homes, but they aren’t penthouses.
  • Finished in materials and offering features not available on other floors of the building (e.g., higher ceilings, better appliances…).
  • Offer rarely available views or a unique perspective on the city.

And while it isn’t mandatory, the other item a penthouse home generally will have is:

  • Private outdoor space.

While it is clear that the aforementioned homes at 181 Fremont and The Avery definitely meet the definition of a penthouse, what about some of the other SF properties currently being marketed as penthouses?

We say that double-height ceilings, 1/2 floor layout, private outdoor space, and direct-to-residence elevator access more than qualify residence 41A at The Lumina as a genuine penthouse. 41B, the other half of the top two floors, is also available. Both are offered as shells for custom build-outs, another feature generally not available to new construction buyers in San Francisco.
This home at 1731 Powell in North Beach clears the 40′ North Beach height limits and has phenomenal views. However, it’s in a smaller mid-rise building. We love the home but we don’t think it meets the criteria for a penthouse.
The Harrison in South Beach is offering this half-floor residence as part of its “signature collection” of 1/2 floor homes marketed as penthouses on the 45th through the 49th floor. Floors 45 – 48 offer two homes per floor. The finishes are the same as in other homes in the building, and the only unique feature is the size of the home and its relatively high location in the building.
While floors 45 – 48 offer 1/2 floor homes at The Harrison, the 49th floor is primarily occupied by Uncle Harry’s, the luxurious owners’ lounge at The Harrison. However, the 49th floor has one home, an average size 2/2 plan that doesn’t offer a unique layout, unique finishes, or have private outdoor space. It also shares the 49th floor with Uncle Harry’s — and it’s entirely plausible to think that people might be a little rowdy and boisterous when going to or coming from the owners’ lounge.  It’s a lovely home, but no penthouse. More like the black sheep of penthouse homes.
Finally, we have this stunning full-floor co-op flat in Pacific Heights. It’s not the top floor in the building; it is one level below that. However, it is one of only two homes in the building that offers a full-floor layout, and it does offer some pretty spectacular views. Given the views and size, we’re inclined to agree with the penthouse moniker for this stunning home.
That’s our take on penthouse homes for sale in San Francisco. What are your thoughts?
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